Thursday, March 4, 2010

Traffic: Not the Movie.

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On a recent recommendation, I "picked up" a copy of the book, Traffic in pixel-ly form for the kindle for Iphone. Do I sound like an AT&T ad?

The author Tom Vanderbilt establishes the thesis early, that our traffic problems and our inability to yet address them is less of a "traffic" problem and more of a human one. We've discussed (perhaps ad nauseum), the inherent difficulties of reducing cities into formula. They are abstractions or reductions which can ONLY be used for rhetorical purposes. The problem lies in the argument. Is it for the good of the city?

The answer is that you have to look behind the statistic at the real question and the proposed solution. Is that something we really want (or can afford). No statistic or calculation on cities is ever holistic enough to provide proper context. Yet we base nearly all decisions on perhaps overly reductive statistics.

We are now equipped with formulae, calculations, and algorithms that create projections with the ultimate determination being a "level of service" grade that is then used to determine how many lanes need to be added to ensure traffic flow. Now, the inherent flaws of supply-side solutions aside (and ignoring the cost implications of building more roads/lanes), in order to ask the real question, we have to take a step back before we end up with something like this:

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Does decision-making for strictly traffic purposes make any sense, when the implications are much more drastic than whether traffic flow is at a level of service 'A' or 'B'? How is the quality of life? Is it socially just to exclude all other forms of transit, ie mobility from the street? Is it beautiful (which is the first question of sustainability - is it attractive enough to care about, and then in turn, maintain?)? Is it SAFE? Is it economically effective, meaning 1) can we afford it, and 2) does transportation planning for the car allow for the arrangement of uses in the most efficient manner to ensure a more productive economy?

The answer is that all of these questions are interconnected and the protocol we use for street-determination and design ignores these factors.

Rather, while taking into account all of those issues, we should stop thinking about cars and base our framework for design and decision-making on behavioralism. Rather than theory and formula, how do our road networks actually work in progress? I think by any objective criteria, cost per capita and deaths, injuries, and pollutant counts, or entire methodology for road planning, design, and construction is an abject failure.

Currently in many cities, American ones in particular (and especially in Dallas), all roads lead to highways. Highways are literally the one place where all ages from 16-80 (and younger for passengers), all incomes, all backgrounds, converge and interact. Except that interaction is hardly a compassionate or courteous one. We forget all of our cultural mores for acceptable behavior when somebody is cutting us off to make the exit. Gotta get to work to push that paper on time!

I gave up driving (mostly) and my car (for good) because it was a miserable experience personally. But, that isn't a lifestyle choice that is appropriate or possible for many.

Cars promised freedom. But is that freedom real or imaginary? There is typically only one way to the store or to school or to work. The only real freedom we have is the choice between the perceived faster lane and the lane we currently occupy. Does that help or is that just another extra couple of million that we spent on what was thought to be a luxury, more lanes, more flow, hooray!

I would argue that for the sake of improved city, improved quality of life, AND improved traffic flow that we actually have to limit choice where it is inappropriate, ineffectual, and downright hazardous: the choice of multiple lanes and the fruitless, constant changing of those lanes, despite having no (or limited) choice in route.

Rather, we should replace false choice with increased freedom in areas where the impact is more positive: choice of transportation mode (and the accessibility/provision/and increased safety in all forms of that choice) and the choice of route. Choice of route is only possible with a less dendritic, less hierarchical, gridded system of smaller streets (but more lanes in sum) that is far more resilient to traffic backups.

In the current system, where everyone is funneled to arterials and highways, one accident or backup, is like an aneurysm, not just for the "traffic," but for the entire local economy is countless man-hours are wasted sitting in cars.

Building our way out of "traffic" problems with more lanes or highways only compounds the problem through exorbitant sunk costs, little return, greater "induced" traffic, greater distance between people and their destinations, which is, in turn, an unseen tax on the economy. Furthermore, it is ugly. And they're ain't no savin' ugly.

But, we CAN build our way out of traffic problems by reducing the need to get away from streets and each other. Improved streets that are safe, attractive, and amenable to multiple forms of mobility including bikes, and pedestrians can actually move more people than a conventional street can.

Furthermore, an attractive street is a demand-driver. People want to be near it, as a high quality place, which is necessary for density. Eventually, the distances between people and destinations becomes drastically reduced, as we get more bang for our public buck, and the overall economy gets stronger.